‘Too normal for Austin, too cool for Houston’ reads a T-shirt in Bullzerk boutique. ‘Keep Dallas boring’, another suggests, while a third pleads to ‘Keep Dallas better than Austin’. Looking around, it seems Dallas is struggling with an identity crisis, measuring itself against its confident cousins to the south.
I’ve always thought of Dallas as composed of equal measures of pioneer spirit and Southern hospitality, with a few dashes of haughty nouveau riche thrown in. Yet it’s always hidden its light under the bushel of Texan identity. Above Bullzerk’s racks of T-shirts hangs a sign: ‘Proudly made in Texas’. “We do all the production here,” says Dan Bradley, Bullzerk’s founder. “All hand-printed; it’s crazy, nobody does this anymore.”
But there are signs this city is forging its own distinct identity. Outside, buzzy bars spill onto the pavement and a queue snakes slowly towards gourmet popsicle outfit Steel City Pops. “Greenville used to be like the hood, and now it’s one of the most popular areas, with restaurants and bars,” says Dan. “There are only a couple areas where it’s like this — true city living, you know: character, uniqueness. This area is one of them. Deep Ellum is another.”
Hopping in an Uber — no metros mean ridesharing is Dallas’s transportation du jour — I head there next. I slip into Off the Record, an industrial-chic bar with local beer and vinyl for sale. “Over the past two to three years, this area has undergone a resurgence,” Norell, the bartender says. “At first it was super grungy. East Dallas is like Austin — very blue, very liberal, very chilled. You go to Fort Worth, the cops still wear cowboy hats — it’s more country; Dallas is very metropolitan.”
This rapid transformation from down and out to des res is especially evident over in West Dallas, at Trinity Groves, a mini-mall of foodie startups. Chino Chinatown, for example, blends Latin and Asian dishes; while Kate Weiser Chocolate sells hand-painted bonbons that resemble oversized marbles; and LUCK serves craft beer brewed within a 75-mile radius.
I down my Silly Gose sour, a citrusy, German-style wheat beer — currently a LUCK staple — and order an Uber to take me downtown. My driver, Dalph, tells me West Dallas has changed. “I remember this area used to be crud,” he laughs. “Now everyone is returning — it’s for the better. The old money has died off, and the new generation is here.”
See & do
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden: Packed with beautiful blooms, this is where Dallasites find Zen. It’s a 66-acre technicolour wonderland with hummingbirds dipping their beaks into bright red fairy dusters, pink azaleas swaying drunkenly, and coleuses fringing the scenic White Rock Lake.
Sixth Floor Museum: Dallas remains synonymous with the JFK assassination — and this museum poignantly sits at the spot where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots at the motorcade in 1963. It provides a thorough overview of the life, career, death and legacy of the ill-fated president.
Geo-Deck: The city’s most recognisable landmark, Reunion Tower, resembles a giant disco ball — and you can join the party at its observation deck. This isn’t for those prone to vertigo — the panoramic view is from 470ft. Interactive touchscreens and telescopes are also on hand to help you get familiar with the Big D.
Nasher Sculpture Center: Perhaps one of the most serene settings for art aficionados — over 300 masterpieces by the likes of Rodin, Noguchi and Picasso are peppered throughout a light-filled indoor gallery and leafy garden. Grab a salmon salad and glass of white in the minimalist cafe, which spills outside in summer.
M-line Trolley: These vintage streetcars — the oldest dates back to 1909 — rattle past uptown’s galleries, bars and restaurants. Hop on one — for free — and you’ll feel like you’re riding a twee time machine.
Pioneer Plaza: Calling all cowboys! Imagine driving Texas longhorn steers at this sculpture park, which commemorates 19th-century cattle drives. Created by Robert Summers, 49 six-foot bronze statues ‘gallop’ across this peaceful public space.
Dallas Museum of Art: It doesn’t get much more comprehensive than this — over 24,000 works span 5,000 years. Time travel from ancient Egypt, with amulets dating back to 332 BC, to 20th-century America, and Pollock’s iconic drip paintings. A full calendar of events includes midnight openings on the third Friday of every month.
George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum: This 23-acre library and museum is well worth a visit, whatever your political views. Artefacts and documents relating to the 43rd president (who grew up in Texas, and served as its Governor) are on view, along with a replica of the Oval Office.
Truck Yard: A beer garden with a rotating rota of food trucks paper plating American classics including the cheesesteak. There are plenty of novel places to take a seat, including a treehouse and the cargo beds of vintage Chevy pickups.
Cidercade: A nerd’s dream house packed with over 150 classic arcade games, including Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, plus a whole wall lined with pinball machines — all free to play when you buy a pint of the hard stuff from Bishop Cider Co, which has around two dozen ciders and meads on tap.
Braindead Brewing: A sprawling brewpub that has a lively outdoor patio with trees strung with fairy lights. There are around 30 beers on tap, from a Chardonnay barrel-aged saison to a blood orange hibiscus radler and a coffee scotch ale. The food offering, meanwhile, is as sizeable as the brewery. Go for the Coma Burger, containing a mound of brisket and bacon topped with stout mustard, sweet onion jam and smoked cheddar.
Like a local
Klyde Warren Park: It may be built over the six-lane freeway that connects Uptown and Downtown, but this five-acre green space is much more serene than it sounds. It’s served by a fleet of food trucks, kids play in water fountains, and runners whizz across jogging trails. There are also free events including yoga, book signings and outdoor concerts.
Catch a game: When you’re in the Big D, root, root, root for the home team, as the old baseball song goes. That team is the Texas Rangers, which hits balls out of the park in nearby Arlington. The city is also home to the Dallas Cowboys, a football team with a rabid fan base. Hut, hut, hike!
Barbecue: Texas’s unofficial national dish (Tex-Mex is a close second). Head to Lockhart Smokehouse for a pile of oak-smoked beef brisket with a side of blue cheese slaw. More top-notch barbecue can be gobbled up at Smoke, where brunch means dishes like brisket cornbread hash; or Pecan Lodge, whose ultimate carnivore sharing option is termed The Trough.
NYLO Dallas South Side: This is one very hip home away from home. Inside the red-brick building, urban vibes extend to polished concrete floors, industrial fittings and expansive loft rooms with leafy green plants. Next to the rooftop pool is the SODA Bar, where you can neck Negronis while taking in the stunning Dallas skyline.
The Adolphus Hotel: The grande dame of Dallas hotels, this extravagant Parisian beaux-arts building has been welcoming the well-to-do for over a century. Its red-brick and granite facade topped by Greek gods and gargoyles is an immutable Dallas landmark, but a 2016 renovation has spruced up the interior — think dark woods and deep blues, gilded chandeliers, copper-topped bars and a wedding-cake-white bistro.
Hotel Zaza: Splurge on a ‘concept suite’, each decked out in a different, but equally bonkers, theme. The Houston We Have a Problem, for instance, contains a full-sized spacesuit, moon-landing photos, space rocket lava lamps, and a bubble chair. The leafy, marble-clad poolside, meanwhile, is where A-listers kick back; it’s a showstopper.
Dude, Sweet Chocolate: Local chocolatier Katherine Clapner crafts creations like Crack in a Box (cocoa nibs, hazelnut, almond, macadamia), Chocolate ‘Salami’, and Break Up Potion — made with agave nectar, bourbon and dark chocolate — ideal smothered on a tub of ice cream.
The Wild Detectives: Vonnegut, Salinger, Mailer, Orwell… there’s a fantastic selection of curated tomes in this cosy independent bookshop — plus a wood-top bar from which to sup local brews. Frequent readings and film screenings also pull in the punters, but booze and books is the store’s winning combo.
Rocket Fizz Deep Ellum: Dying to know what dirt tastes like? Well, now you can indulge your peculiar palate at this quirky candy and soda shop. Pop flavours include dirt, butter, bacon and even barf, which has ‘great chunky flavor’.
Dallas Farmers Market: An artisanal grub hub, where you can buy local products or eat at stalls serving up such treats as a moreish Texas cheese plate from Scardello — a great precursor to a Steampunk amber lager at the Noble Rey Brewing taproom.
Trinity Groves: Home to the Restaurant Incubator programme, which encourages entrepreneurs to develop culinary concepts. The result is like an epicurean theme park. Try LUCK, serving hyper-local brews and upscale Texas comfort food such as smoked pastrami sandwiches.
Frank: Fusing fine dining and secret supper club aesthetic, this underground restaurant is run by MasterChef finalists Jennie Kelley and Ben Starr. The multi-course menu has playful themes like ‘poison’, using ingredients with toxic properties. This is an unapologetic gastronomical celebration.
Getting there & around
American Airlines flies three times daily from Heathrow to Dallas/Fort Worth. British Airways offers frequent nonstop flights to Dallas. WOW Air has new flights to DFW from Stansted and Gatwick, via Reykjavik.
Average flight time: 10h.
The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) offers affordable bus and rail options, but ridesharing (Uber, Lyft) tends to be a more popular option for visitors who don’t rent a car.
When to go
Mild and pleasant all year, apart from high summer when temperatures soar to the high 30Cs.
Lonely Planet Texas. RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
America As You Like It has four nights in Dallas from £1,150 per person, including return flights on American Airlines from Heathrow, staying at the Adolphus Hotel, room only.
Published in the July/August 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)